Many of us have experienced an increase in stress over the last year. Though stress often carries a negative connotation, a healthy stress response is essential for our overall well-being. It is when stress becomes chronic and unmanaged that we start to see its detriments to health, and this has a lot to do with what part of the nervous system is activated during chronic stress.
Stress and Digestion
If you think back to high school health class, or if you’ve taken our Food as Medicine Everyday (FAME) series, you might remember learning about the different branches of the nervous system. The two that we will discuss today are called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is referred to as the “fight or flight” response and when you are in this state, your brain secretes chemical messengers that can make you alert and quick to respond to stressful situations. Your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and digestive function slows down.
The PNS is referred to as the “rest and digest” response and this is considered our calmer state of being. When the PNS is activated, your heart rate slows down, your gastrointestinal tract receives more blood flow, and it is easier to relax.
Chronic stress can lead to an overactive SNS or “fight or flight” response, which causes impairments in digestion function including1:
- Decreased blood flow to the GI tract
- Slower digestion
- Impaired nutrient absorption
- Increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut, which can lead to food sensitivities)
To avoid the detriments to digestive health that being under chronic stress can cause, practicing mindfulness before meals can help improve digestion by promoting the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
How to Practice Mindful Eating:
Mindfulness is defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.2” Therefore, when you are eating mindfully the goal is to be fully engaged in the present moment during your meals. Food becomes more enjoyable, it is easier to tune into hunger and fullness cues from your body, and you set your nervous system up for proper digestion.
There are countless books on the subject of mindful eating and many online resources with meditations and exercises that you can implement to start eating more mindfully. A few key tips for eating mindfully are:
- Eat without distraction. Turn off the television, put your phone on silent, close your laptop and sit down for your meals. When we eat in front of a screen, we are typically more focused on what we are watching or working on then what we are eating. While there is value in eating in silence, this can be hard to implement for those who are used to watching TV while eating. Turning on some relaxing music or having a nice conversation with family or friends during meals can help fill the silence and promote the parasympathetic response that is desired during mealtimes.
- Listen to your body’s hunger cues. All too often we eat out of boredom, emotions, or convenience. Before you eat, take a few deep breaths and assess if you are actually hungry. While eating, practice mindfulness by eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and savoring each bite. It can take up to 20 minutes after you start eating to feel full so slowing down can help prevent overeating. Putting your fork down between bites can help you slow down if you tend to be a fast eater.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing before you eat. When you breathe deep and expand your diaphragm a nerve called the vagus nerve is activated, which is directly linked to promoting the parasympathetic response. To learn how to practice diaphragmatic breathing, follow the link below:
- Engage your senses.Sight, smell, sound, taste and touch- remember those?! Simply seeing and smelling food can activate our digestive systems. Try to engage all 5 senses to promote mindfulness during meals.
- Enjoy your food. A principle of mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Applying this to eating allows us to enjoy the food we are eating without shame or guilt. If we are overwhelmed with guilt when eating a cookie, we can’t fully enjoy the deliciousness the cookie has to offer! Let go of guilt and emotional eating by practicing presence with your meals. When you are fully engaged while eating, you are also less likely to overeat which prevents future guilt about food choices.
Though we can’t always control the stress that is around us, we do have the power to tap into a calmer state of being before meals with simple actions like the ones listed above. By implementing the practices of mindful eating, you may notice that it becomes easier to be present during other parts of your day as well.
About the Author:
April Jones is a student in the Naturopathic Medicine and Master of Science in Nutrition programs at National University of Natural Medicine. April has worked as an assistant for the Food as Medicine Everyday (FAME) series throughout her time at NUNM. Her favorite part about the series is witnessing participants have “Aha!”moments during nutrition lessons, and helping others strengthen their connection to lifelong health by cooking with whole foods. Her nutrition philosophy is all about balance and she believes in utilizing food as medicine, every day!
1. Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019;18(4):48-53.
2. Mindfulness. Merriam-Webster. Available at:https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness. Accessed on November 10, 2020.